Normal birth is a eustress reaction, a beneficial hedonic stress with extremely high catecholamines that protects us from intrauterine hypoxia and assists in the rapid shift to extrauterine life. Occasionally the cellular O2 requirement becomes critical and an O2 deficit in blood (hypoxemia) may evolve to a tissue deficit (hypoxia) and finally a risk of organ damage (asphyxia). An increase in H+ concentration is reflected in a decrease in pH, which together with increased base deficit is a proxy for the level of fetal O2 deficit. Base deficit (or its negative value, base excess) was introduced to reflect the metabolic component of a low pH and to distinguish from the respiratory cause of a low pH, which is a high CO2 concentration. Base deficit is a theoretical estimate and not a measured parameter, calculated by the blood gas analyzer from values of pH, the partial pressure of CO2, and hemoglobin. Different brands of analyzers use different calculation equations, and base deficit values can thus differ by multiples. This could influence the diagnosis of metabolic acidosis, which is commonly defined as a pH <7.00 combined with a base deficit ≥12.0 mmol/L in umbilical cord arterial blood. Base deficit can be calculated as base deficit in blood (or actual base deficit) or base deficit in extracellular fluid (or standard base deficit). The extracellular fluid compartment represents the blood volume diluted with the interstitial fluid. Base deficit in extracellular fluid is advocated for fetal blood because a high partial pressure of CO2 (hypercapnia) is common in newborns without concomitant hypoxia, and hypercapnia has a strong influence on the pH value, then termed respiratory acidosis. An increase in partial pressure of CO2 causes less increase in base deficit in extracellular fluid than in base deficit in blood, thus base deficit in extracellular fluid better represents the metabolic component of acidosis. The different types of base deficit for defining metabolic acidosis in cord blood have unfortunately not been noticed by many obstetrical experts and organizations. In addition to an increase in H+ concentration, the lactate production is accelerated during hypoxia and anaerobic metabolism. There is no global consensus on definitions of normal cord blood gases and lactate, and different cutoff values for abnormality are used. At a pH <7.20, 7% to 9% of newborns are deemed academic; at <7.10, 1% to 3%; and at <7.00, 0.26% to 1.3%. From numerous studies of different eras and sizes, it can firmly be concluded that in the cord artery, the statistically defined lower pH limit (mean -2 standard deviations) is 7.10. Given that the pH for optimal enzyme activity differs between different cell types and organs, it seems difficult to establish a general biologically critical pH limit. The blood gases and lactate in cord blood change with the progression of pregnancy toward a mixed metabolic and respiratory acidemia because of increased metabolism and CO2 production in the growing fetus. Gestational age-adjusted normal reference values have accordingly been published for pH and lactate, and they associate with Apgar score slightly better than stationary cutoffs, but they are not widely used in clinical practice. On the basis of good-quality data, it is reasonable to set a cord artery lactate cutoff (mean +2 standard deviations) at 10 mmol/L at 39 to 40 weeks' gestation. For base deficit, it is not possible to establish statistically defined reference values because base deficit is calculated with different equations, and there is no consensus on which to use. Arterial cord blood represents the fetus better than venous blood, and samples from both vessels are needed to validate the arterial origin. A venoarterial pH gradient of <0.02 is commonly used to differentiate arterial from venous samples. Reference values for pH in cord venous blood have been determined, but venous blood comes from the placenta after clearance of a surplus of arterial CO2, and base deficit in venous blood then overestimates the metabolic component of fetal acidosis. The ambition to increase neonatal hemoglobin and iron depots by delaying cord clamping after birth results in falsely acidic blood gas and lactate values if the blood sampling is also delayed. Within seconds after birth, sour metabolites accumulated in peripheral tissues and organs will flood into the central circulation and further to the cord arteries when the newborn starts to breathe, move, and cry. This influence of "hidden acidosis" can be avoided by needle puncture of unclamped cord vessels and blood collection immediately after birth. Because of a continuing anaerobic glycolysis in the collected blood, it should be analyzed within 5 minutes to not result in a falsely high lactate value. If the syringe is placed in ice slurry, the time limit is 20 minutes. For pH, it is reasonable to wait no longer than 15 minutes if not in ice. Routine analyses of cord blood gases enable perinatal audits to gain the wisdom of hindsight, to maintain quality assurance at a maternity unit over years by following the rate of neonatal acidosis, to compare results between hospitals on regional or national bases, and to obtain an objective outcome measure in clinical research. Given that the intrapartum cardiotocogram is an uncertain proxy for fetal hypoxia, and there is no strong correlation between pathologic cardiotocograms and fetal acidosis, a cord artery pH may help rather than hurt a staff person subjected to a malpractice suit based on undesirable cardiotocogram patterns. Contrary to common beliefs and assumptions, up to 90% of cases of cerebral palsy do not originate from intrapartum events. Future research will elucidate whether cell injury markers with point-of-care analysis will become valuable in improving the dating of perinatal injuries and differentiating hypoxic from nonhypoxic injuries.
Keywords: Apgar; acidemia; acidosis; asphyxia; base deficit; base excess; birth; cerebral palsy; cord blood analysis; cord blood gases; encephalopathy; hypoxia; lactate; metabolic acidosis; neonatal outcome; pH; perinatal outcome; pregnancy.
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